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Network TV Report Card

[IMG:L]It’s already November, meaning most new TV shows have had a good two months to spread their wings and soar–or to fall flat on their faces and get cancelled (talkin’ to you, Viva Laughlin). For returning shows, all is pretty much well as long as ratings don’t decrease from a season ago. The networks, meanwhile, have a good gauge by now on what’s working, what’s not and what needs to be done going forward–which could potentially spell the apocalypse for some of your favorite shows whose ratings just don’t make the grade (talkin’ to you, Friday Night Lights). Speaking of grades, we use the letter scale below to assess how each of the four major networks has fared so far this TV season. Of course, all shows’ fates are currently up in the air pending a quick resolution to the writers strike. Keep those fingers crossed, Heroes-heads.

[IMG:R]ABC

The Newbies: ABC’s new shows have registered all over the radar, from the not-so-surprisingly excellent ratings for TV vet Christina Applegate’s Samantha Who? (thanks also to its prime primetime slot following Dancing with the Stars), to the failed attempt at novelty ratings by Geico offshoot Cavemen. Elsewhere, Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice started strong but has slipped a little bit–ditto for the season’s critical darling, Pushing Daisies–while the soapy Dirty Sexy Money has shown promise. Angie Harmon’s recently premiered Women’s Murder Club, too, has gotten off to a very solid start, capitalizing on the current glut of female-centric hour-longs.
The Holdovers: The network’s returning shows have continued to perform well in the ratings department, led by Dancing with the Stars, the biggest reality competition not named American Idol. Lost, despite long waits for viewers (next season doesn’t start until February) and an end very much in sight (three more seasons), remains a force to be reckoned with in the land of TV. Holding court is the three-headed ratings monster of Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and sophomore Ugly Betty, with youngsters Brothers & Sisters and Men in Trees rising swiftly and gradually, respectively. Boston Legal continues to be a safe bet for both ABC and its viewers.
The Forecast: Clear skies. Sure things like Lost, Grey’s, Housewives and Dancing are massive and virtually slump-proof. ABC also covers all the genres well unlike its network brethren. And with up-and-comers like Samantha Who?, Women’s Murder Club and even the still-ascending Brothers & Sisters–not to mention Dirty Sexy Money, which could lure the same demographic as Housewives’ viewers–the future is almost as bright as the present.
The Grade: B+

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[IMG:L]CBS

The Newbies: Hugh Jackman’s outlandish Viva Laughlin has hogged the headlines over every other new show this season–for all the wrong reasons: The musical dramedy was cancelled after two (!) episodes; track down a clip from the show and you’ll understand why. Meanwhile, the network’s highly controversial foray into pint-sized reality, Kid Nation, has amounted to very unspectacular ratings. CBS’ other new additions have fared better, namely geek-com The Big Bang Theory, which is not surprising since it was created by Two and a Half Men’s brain trust. To a slightly lesser degree, the Jimmy Smits-starrer Cane and vampire drama Moonlight continue to hang around.
The Holdovers: CBS’ holdovers have been golden and are clearly what keep its primetime ratings through the roof. The CSI shows, first and foremost, are absolute ratings monsters; the original CSI has now been the most watched scripted show since the 2002-2003 season. Then there are the other procedural-type shows, like NCIS, Without a Trace, The Unit, Cold Case, Numb3rs and Criminal Minds, all of which are hugely successful. CBS also covers legal dramas (Shark), sitcoms (The New Adventures of Old Christine, Two and a Half Men), reality (Amazing Race, Survivor, Big Brother) and supernatural (The Ghost Whisperer). Finally, they have a gem in their back pocket in the superb How I Met Your Mother, which continues to either convert new viewers or endear the faithful by simply staying on the air.
The Forecast: Sunny, with no chance of rain–ever! The network’s humongous core of breadwinners has major staying power, because most of them have been performing as such for years. CBS is indubitably the go-to network for drama, but it has a sizable hit in every other genre. And if it seems like Les Moonves and co. didn’t order a lot of new shows for this season, it’s because they logically subscribe to the “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” business model. Well, not only is nothing broken, but the network doesn’t even have many time slots in which to put a new show!
The Grade: A
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[IMG:L]FOX

The Newbies: Following its premiere week, Back to You set up Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton for very successful TV comebacks. Alas, the news-anchor sitcom has tumbled steeply ratings-wise since Week 1. And that’s about the best to be said for Fox’s rookies, with New Orleans-set cop drama K-Ville struggling somewhat and just-premiered reality show The Next Great American Band struggling mightily. The network could see its luck change, however, when Sarah Connor Chronicles–based on Linda Hamilton’s Terminator character–premieres this midseason.
The Holdovers: This is where Fox gets its Herculean numbers–primarily from these four little shows you may have heard of: American Idol, 24, The Simpsons and House. That quadruplet would be enough to carry an entire network, and, well, it basically does so for Fox. Idol continues to galvanize an entire nation, if not planet, during its run, with a brand name that reaches beyond mere TV; 24 corners the male market unlike any other show, although overall viewership keeps rising steadily; The Simpsons, on the heels of its summer blockbuster movie, is now in its 20th season, constantly setting all kinds of records; and the group’s relative newcomer and quasi-phenomenon, House, eats up ratings week after week and has turned Hugh Laurie into a likable, if reluctant, star. And while Prison Break has seen a sharp ratings decline this season, shows such as Bones and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? have been surprise hits for Fox.
The Forecast: Partly cloudy. While the big four can and do carry Fox, the network would really benefit from a breakout, especially with Simon Cowell already talking of his Idol exit strategy. Add to that Kiefer Sutherland’s current legal woes and the realization that Matt Groening is bound to want to move on from The Simpsons at some stage, and…yeah, they need a hit or two. Which could come shortly with midseason and the arrival of Sarah Connor, potentially saving the day again.
The Grade: C-

[IMG:R]NBC

The Newbies: The excitement over NBC’s new shows has died down since their premieres, as evidenced by the ratings. Chuck and Bionic Woman were touted as the next Heroes-sized phenoms, and they were at first, especially Bionic Woman. But after a big opening night, the re-imagining has come back down to earth with ratings similar to those of its fellow hyped rookie Chuck. The geek-turned-spy dramedy, from The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz, has also fallen but not as steeply. Both, however, remain successes for NBC. On the flipside are Life and Journeyman, both of whose fanfare hasn’t been near that of the aforementioned new shows’. But NBC has given both a mild vote of confidence by recently ordering more scripts.
The Holdovers: Here’s where it gets weird for NBC. The network appeals to the most fervent fans, yet it seems as though some of those fans are only discussing the shows at the water cooler and not actually watching them. Take The Office, one of the most hailed shows by critics and viewers alike: Despite all the gimmicks, advertising ploys and endorsements in NBC’s playbook, the show–which stars a heavyweight in Steve Carell, no less–continues to garner only decent ratings. (It’s worth noting that The Office has been at or near the top of the most-downloaded list of TV shows on iTunes for some time, but NBC recently cut ties with Apple over a pricing dispute, effective at the end of 2007.) The Office’s ratings plight seems nonexistent when compared to Tina Fey’s Emmy Award-winning 30 Rock, which is struggling mightily despite somewhat higher numbers this season. Among their Thursday night compadres, My Name Is Earl has the brightest future. Veterans like ER and Scrubs are really showing their age, with ER’s ratings, though still solid, continuing a very steady decline begun over a decade ago, and Scrubs limping, ratings-wise, into retirement after its current season. Heroes has tailed off a drop from last season but is a huge part of the network’s present and future, while its sophomore peer Friday Night Lights has struggled again after barely surviving NBC’s cuts. As for the reality lineup, Deal or No Deal and The Biggest Loser have proven themselves steady hits for NBC.
The Forecast: Gradually clearing up. NBC has positioned itself, surprisingly, as the hippest of the four networks, and its relatively small viewership is hopelessly devoted to “their” shows. A lot hinges on Heroes, which has turned into a mini-Lost in terms of its buzzworthiness and sheer explosion. Offbeat comedies such as The Office and 30 Rock seem more poised for a Seinfeld-like explosion at some point (though not to that show’s extent, of course) than an Arrested Development cancellation. It’s scary to think, but perhaps if NBC simply brought back the laugh track…
The Grade: C

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